A reader writes:
I was wondering what you think is the best way to handle/ confront "passive sexism" from an adviser or peer? In the past I have had the "opportunity" to work for an openly sexist adviser and dealing with that was of course a struggle but at least it was straight forward..."he didn't think women had a place in the lab". However, my current male adviser and all-male group are much less open with their sexism. It is just a sum of "little" things: Pay inequality, work inequality, varying expectations, favoring male students with worse records, etc ...and of course my all time favorite is secretary duty: copying, note taking, scheduling, and ordering. Despite all of that, in 2 years I have out produced/ published most (if not all) students in our group, but it doesn't seem to matter. I have tried bringing these inequalities (especially pay) to my adviser's attention directly and indirectly, but he is always prepared to jump to the defensive.
How do you handle/fight being overlooked when work alone isn't enough? Can it be done without coming off as cold or earning a more offensive title?
First of all, I would not call that passive sexism, and I don't think some of those examples of inequality are so little, considering that some can have a major negative effect on your career. Just because an adviser doesn't say to you "You are less qualified because you are a woman" doesn't make it OK for him to pay you less, favor less qualified male students, and single you out for clerical tasks. That is quite active sexism.
On the bright side, your productivity could be valued more than you think, although it might be hard for you to tell from your adviser's behavior.
Over at the FSP blog, I wrote at some point about how my grad adviser never supported me with a grant (I was a TA the entire time) and in every way favored his male graduate students. In my last year, he told me that he was giving an RA to Unproductive Guy instead of to me because he knew that I could teach and be productive with my research, but Unproductive Guy wasn't able to do that. As a student, I felt hostile about that. As an adviser.. I can understand it better, although I'm not sure I would make the same decision.
Although it is little comfort, your adviser may give you clerical tasks because he knows they will get done and get done well. Even now, as a fairly senior professor, I get assigned to do things like this and my male colleague seldom do. Is it sexism to single me out for these tasks or is the chair just trying to get things done by giving tasks like this to someone who will get them done efficiently?
A few weeks ago, I got asked to clean out a teaching lab. The task was deemed too complex for a student because decisions would have to be made about what antiquated devices and materials to throw out and what to keep. I discovered that most of the clutter in the lab belonged to courses I have never taught, but when I brought this to the attention of the relevant faculty (all men), they refused to do anything to help clean up their mess. I am guessing they don't do much housework at their homes, but I could be wrong.
As a professor, it is of course much easier for me to say no to my department chair's requests than it is for a graduate student to refuse a task from an adviser. It might, however, be worth saying something like "Since I did that last time, perhaps one of the others could do it this time?" or "I've been doing all the ordering this term; could someone else do it next term?". Maybe you've done that already, as you say you've tried to bring these issues to your adviser's attention in various ways. If your adviser refuses reasonable requests like that, he definitely has a problem, but to be a bit optimistic, perhaps his first reaction is defensive, but maybe he will make some changes.
Are your fellow grad students aware of the situation and, if so, are they at all supportive or are they just glad that they don't get asked to do the ordering and copying.
When I was in a similar situation as a graduate student, I just did my work as best I could. I was productive, wrote papers, and my adviser respected that and wrote positive letters of recommendation for me.
So things turned out fine for me in the end, but an important question is whether there is any way to change the behavior of advisers like this so that these issues don't arise for the female students they will advise in the future. For those advisers who are apprised of their unfair advising practices and who nevertheless refuse to change, I don't think that students can do much to improve the situation; at least not without possibly harming their career prospects. These changes have to come from above, if there is any will to do so, or an adviser has to otherwise experience negative consequences of unfair advising practices (e.g., difficulty recruiting new students) and voluntarily change out of self-interest.